Making Research Visible at the NRC


Wally Cherwinski had an itch--a nagging feeling that there were more opportunities out there for a scientist than simply research. The chance to scratch that itch came through something very Canadian--a hockey game. This was surprising because he was living in England at the time, working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge. He had ventured abroad after finishing his Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry at the University of Western Ontario, and 2 years in he still considered it "a wonderful experience." But one day "on the way to the lab," he ran into a friend, a fellow Canadian, who encouraged him to come play hockey. "What else do Canadians do?" teases Cherwinski, who soon found himself on the Cambridge varsity hockey team. Twenty-five years ago, the English crowds who came to watch the games knew little about hockey, so as you may imagine, "many funny things happened." This amusement inspired Cherwinski to write a newspaper article about a game. "I put it in an envelope and I mailed it to the Globe and Mail," comments Cherwinski. And to his surprise, a few weeks later he received a $500 check in the mail. The article was published on the front page of the sports section.

Cherwinski was impressed, and three personally enlightening career thoughts passed through his mind. Firstly that, "I'd been a scientist for ... 10 to 12 years. In all that time, the people I knew, my friends, had no idea what I did," says Cherwinski. Second was his revelation that "an article in the Globe and Mail has the potential to be read by a half million to a million people," and he considered that he might never come close to such extensive communication in his entire lifetime career as a scientist. And finally, he realised, "they paid me to do this, and people actually make a living doing this. Isn't that interesting?" Suddenly, he discovered he had a lot to talk about.

When the time came to finish his postdoc, Cherwinski found he had a "serious decision" to make--obtain another research position or make the transition into something new. The lab lost out, and upon returning to Canada, he enrolled in a graduate program in journalism and communications at Carleton University, Ottawa. "I guess I felt uncomfortable staying in science when I had a nagging feeling that I may be closing the door on an opportunity," he explains.

"Whatever you end up doing, science or communications, it has to suit the kind of person you are and it has to fit your personality and social demeanour," asserts Cherwinski. He discovered that communications felt very natural to him, "because I'm interacting with people. I have the opportunity to use to my science in the stuff I communicate." A lack of public awareness pertaining to scientific matters was something Cherwinski felt he could help with, "I thought it was a challenge for me, if I could share some of my technical knowledge through communications. I thought it might help people to understand some things that are important in their life." He must have been successful, because today Cherwinski is a senior strategy advisor of corporate communications at the National Research Council of Canada ( NRC).

The NRC is Canada's federal science body. With over 4000 employees working in facilities from St. John's to Victoria it is truly a national organization. Its employees do research in fields ranging from nanotechnology to biotechnology to aerospace, as well as providing support to industry and the research community. It is the job of NRC's science communicators to get this busy organization's message out. "You can do very good work, but if people don't know about it, you have no credit and it's quite invisible," says Cherwinski. "If you're trying to attract people to work with you," he explains, "you have to be visible ... they have to see the benefits you're providing for that community." That visibility is gained through media relations, special events, exhibits, publications, and advertising.

At corporate headquarters, it is Cherwinski's job to manage NRC's team of communication officers. "There is someone who looks after public awareness and education ... we have other people who do media relations, people who do Internet and intranet work, people who do the writing of publications, and I'm involved in all these things," explains Cherwinski. In fact, it is his job to design a strategy for all the communication functions. "We just don't do them because they are fun to do," even though, he chuckles, they really are enjoyable. "At the beginning of the year we have an annual strategy" concerning what the NRC wishes to accomplish during that year. This could include a push towards developing specific technologies that are important to Canada and "we unfold [this strategy] through the various tools that I mentioned."

Cherwinski's tasks include plotting Internet tactics, proofing publications, and deciding what types of communication strategies to use, all in one day. "You're involved in many aspects of communications," says Cherwinski of his typical day. An example is Cherwinski's past involvement in the Canadian space program. He developed the communications program that generated public interest in the Canada Arm Project--right down to coining the term "Canada Arm" himself.

Cherwinski's role requires years of experience, but someone starting out in the science communication field is certainly not expected to have such a broad overview of PR techniques. Instead new recruits, such as Alastair McIvor, a scientific communications officer at the Steacie Institute's Neutron Program for the past year and a half, have a much more 'hands on' role.

It was an opportunity to express different aspects of his personality that drew McIvor to communications from a technical research position. Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, he had been working for 6 years as a nuclear engineer at Atomic Energy Canada, where things were "looking good" for McIvor, who says he "wasn't really looking about for another job." All the same, he really wasn't being as creative at his job as he would have liked, he relates--something that was alleviated by starting up a home business in Web and graphic design. But what was intended to be just "a bit of fun" actually helped him to develop "a mixture of skill sets" that made him ideally suited for a future job in communications.

Serendipitously, a job appeared at the Steacie Institute for someone with knowledge of nuclear reactors to design Web sites or print brochures. Interestingly, the job had opened up because the previous scientific communications officer lacked a scientific knowledge base and "hadn't really worked out"--something McIvor didn't have to worry about. He soon found himself "taking the plunge" as a science communicator, although, he admits, "I [was] sufficiently confident of my engineering skills at that time, so if I decided I'd made a wrong choice there would be no trouble going back again."

McIvor's job now sees him doing a lot of graphic design, Web design, creating brochures and billboards, running the Neutron Program's Web site, and creating literature about nuclear reactors to secure funding. Altogether, he is quite happy utilizing his technical skills, while "flexing some artistic muscle," all with the goal of making the Steacie Institute more visible to the community.

Both Cherwinski and McIvor advocate that communicators in science should have a good grasp of science, explaining that technical positions in communications really do require it. "I'm not saying you need a Ph.D. to do these things, but a scientific background, particularly a research background is an asset," says Cherwinski, who feels his Ph.D. gave him a "research mentality" that allowed him to excel in communications. Applying a research methodology to your work "will probably mean that your data is good, that your conclusions are probably valid, and you will be comfortable with extracting [information]," he explains, making a research background an effective tool to merge with media skills to become an effective communicator.

Are there good opportunities in scientific communications? Once again, Cherwinski and McIvor agree. "Absolutely," says Cherwinski, because no matter what type of scientific-based organization--university, company, government, or professional society--they all need communicators. Cherwinski explains, "If someone has a science background and they decide they want to do something else, personally I think they are at an advantage, because they are bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience from their science side and they're mastering something else at the same time, so they are augmenting it."

And for anyone out there who is looking for technical communicators, McIvor suggests you "go pick a scientist!"

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers